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B-1B Lancer: The Aging U.S. Bomber at Full Steam Ahead?

B1-B Lancer pilots often say few people fully understand the scope and importance of the bombing missions the aircraft has performed. The bomber’s success against the Taliban in Afghanistan seems much lesser known than its 1998 combat debut over Iraq in Operation Desert Fox. 

During Operation Enduring Freedom, the B1-B dropped precision weapons, air-glide bombs, and also carpet bombed areas confirmed to be only concentrations of Taliban forces and not civilians.

While not a large fleet, the B1-B performed a very large percentage of the missions in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom, as described in an interesting essay appearing in

B1-B: Aging Bomber at Full Steam

Although only 20-years old in terms of combat service, some are already wondering when the fleet of 92 B1-B bombers will fully retire, a question of significance to the Air Force plan for its future bomber fleet. Like other legacy aircraft, the B1-B lancer has received a number of extremely significant upgrades, including modifications to its weapons bay enabling it to carry hypersonic weapons.

As part of this weapons upgrade, the bomber has received a new Bomb Rack Unit, increasing the aircraft’s ability to carry 500-pound weapons by as much as 60 percent. Its internal weapons bay can now carry 40 bombs as opposed to merely 24. 

The B1-B has also received a new Integrated Targeting Pod, which connects video feeds with other critical intelligence data as well as an upgraded Navigational technology called the Integrated Battle Station.

These technologies enable in-flight intelligence and targeting updates, and also gives pilots the ability to update navigational information more quickly as the combat environment changes.

These upgrades will improve the bomb-dropping and attack capabilities of the aircraft, which can fly up to 60,000 feet, fly faster than Mach 1.25, and drop GBU-31s, GBU-38s, GBU-39s, and the GBU-54 Small Diameter Bomb. 

The Horizon for the Bone

Despite these upgrades, there is a point at which some might wonder when the aircraft might reach obsolescence, as it is not stealthy was designed decades ago. These upgrades can massively improve the functionality, success, and operational performance of the aircraft moving forward, yet the Air Force likely has many critical bomber fleet questions to answer.

U.S. Miliary B-1 Bomber

A B-1B Lancer, tail number 86-0094, is moved across Douglas
Blvd. to the Maintenance Repair and Overhaul Technology Center (MROTC) to receive an initial portion of Gate 1 of programmed depot maintenance April 21. 567th AMXS personnel will perform three days of maintenance which include single system checks on 40 individual actuators validating voltage outputs as
well as interrogating each actuator for hydraulic leaks. After single systems are completed, the horizontal stabilizers will be removed from the aircraft. This is the first time that horizontal stabilizers have ever been removed at the MROTC. Once complete, the aircraft and horizontal stabilizers will be brought back across Douglas to the 569th AMXS strip facility for plastic media blasting. Once stripped, the horizontal stabilizers will be routed to the 76th Commodities Maintenance Group for overhaul and repairs. (U.S. Air Force photo/Kelly White)

The planned arrival of large numbers of new B-21 aircraft and the continued, much-upgraded service of the B-52 and B-2 bombers is likely why the Air Force is planning a phased “sunset” of the B1-B.

This means as numbers of B-21s arrive, the service will progressively divest B1-Bs. However, some portions of upgraded aircraft are likely to remain in service in the coming years as the service seeks to sustain readiness and an optimal fleet configuration. 

B-1B Bomber

B-1B Bomber. Image Credit: U.S. Air Force.

Finally, as a capable bomber and especially a potential hypersonic weapons carrier, the B1-B is likely not going anywhere soon, particularly given that it will take many years until impactful numbers of the new B-21 arrive. 

Author Expertise and Biography

Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.   



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